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February 18th, 2014
12:49 PM ET

College-in-prison grad: 'You can have swagger and be a mathematician'

By Katie McLaughlin, CNN

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced this weekend his state will launch a college-education program for prisoners at 10 facilities.

The program will offer both associate and bachelor's degrees by bringing college professors to the prisons from educational associations that provide accredited programs. Cuomo hopes it will reduce recidivism rates and the overall size of the prison population.

The program is based on an existing one - called Bard Prison Initiative - which provides college education and a Bard College degree to incarcerated individuals at six prisons in New York State.

CNN's Katie McLaughlin attended Bard Prison Initiative's graduation to file the following report.
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A man who spent 17 years behind bars on a manslaughter conviction is back in prison. But not for the reasons you might expect.

Anthony Cardenales traveled to Eastern Correctional Facility in Napanoch, New York to attend Bard Prison Initiative’s 10th graduation ceremony. The program allows incarcerated men and women to obtain degrees from Bard College.

Anthony Cardenales is a graduate.

In 2003, when Bard arrived at the medium-security Woodbourne Correctional Facility in Woodbourne, New York, Cardenales had already been incarcerated for more than a decade and had completed every educational program available at the prison. Knowing that the job prospects for an ex-con were dismal at best, he wanted to make himself as marketable as possible upon his release.

The application process required Cardenales to deliver an essay response to a piece of literature. BPI is highly-selective and only admits about 15 students for every 100 applications received.

Cardenales believes it was his ambition and passion for learning that helped him secure a spot in the program.

“I’ve always been a driven person, I was just driven in the wrong direction,” Cardenales told CNN. Once accepted, “I put all my efforts into getting that degree,” he said.

Cardenales, who majored in social studies, focused on anthropology and the human condition and how people engage with their environment. He sought to engage in a dialogue about recreating the prison space as a learning environment.

“The years of punishment became years of learning,” explained Cardenales. “The institutions of punishment became institutions of learning, of progress, of opportunity. So although they were temporary in the way we engage with them – one minute it’s punitive, another it’s a learning environment, it was subjective engagement of that that enabled you to recreate that space, define your resilience, redefine time and how we perceive it.”

The Anthony Cardenales who completed a senior project on time, space and human resilience was a far cry from the Anthony Cardenales who dropped out of school in the 7th grade.

Incarcerated from the ages of 15 through 17, Cardenales got his GED in 1991 from the Harlem Valley Secure Center, a prison for youths which has since closed its doors. He briefly attended Bronx Community College after his release from Harlem Valley but soon returned to the streets, went back to prison that same year and remained locked up until 2009 at the age of 34.

Cardenales was eager to get his college degree from behind bars, but federal and state funding for college-in-prison programs was banned in 1994 when President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act into law, which banned prisoners from obtaining Pell grants. Cardenales was, however, able to obtain a Certificate of Ministry and Human Services from the New York Theological Seminary in 2000.

Because Bard Prison Initiative operates on private donations, not a dime of government money funds BPI students’ educations.

Cardenales received his Associate of Arts degree in 2006 and then then got his Bachelor of Arts degree in 2008. After graduation, he served the remaining nine months of his prison sentence. Upon his release, Cardenales said he first worked odd jobs, “just trying to get a sense of what working in the free world was like.”

He soon landed an interview with WeRecycle!, a company dedicated to recycling electronic devices, through one of the donors to BPI. In August of 2009, he became the company’s first hire.

Cardenales started out as a project coordinator. He credits Bard with giving him the tools he needed to rationalize through the transition from prison life to civilian life.

Upon his release, Cardenales was surprised to see that many of the burnt-out buildings and vacant lots in his South Bronx community had given way to private homes and slick storefronts. He was also overwhelmed by the advances in technology that had occurred while he was incarcerated.

“I didn’t even know how to use my house phone,” he said. “There was this huge gap between what I was accustomed to or familiar with to what actually was.”

Inter-office e-mail was particularly vexing because Cardenales didn’t even know how to use the Internet.

“I was losing a lot of documents because I would open them up and then the tabs would fill up and then they’d go to the bottom but I couldn’t find them,” he explained. “So it was situations like that that were extremely frustrating; but you couldn’t ask for help with things that basic because you didn’t want to inform everybody of your history.”

But the critical-thinking skills Cardenales obtained through Bard forced him to realize that even though he didn’t know anything about technology or computers, he could take a step back and evaluate.

WeRecycle! recently changed its name to Hugo Neu Recycling, and Cardenales now runs the entire Hugo Neu operation through three facilities – two in Mount Vernon, New York and one in Meriden, Connecticut.

Cardenales remains active in the Bard community and recently traveled to another correctional facility to try to help them institute a similar higher education in prison program. He told CNN that he believes returning for the BPI graduation was the right thing to do “because then the graduates see a tangible reality of the possibilities of this education, what it can actually do; because prior to my graduating class we had no one who was released who came back, who spoke about the challenges, about the hurdles, about the really difficult things that wouldn’t apply to an everyday college student but does apply to us.”

Cardenales would like to see the prison system lean more toward the rehabilitative than the punitive in the future.

“You can’t rehabilitate someone who was not habilitated in its standard definition,” he said. “The individual has to change first.”

Once Cardenales made up his mind - while behind bars - to change the path he was on, he said the Bard education served to enhance his ability to continue that change.

“When they (released inmates) go back to these communities they understand how they can make a difference so that we prevent the next generation of children from coming through here.”

Cardenales, himself a father of five, would like to see a dialogue within the communities encompassing schools, local churches and households. He’d like to set an example for people who might otherwise wind up behind bars of what opportunity truly looks like.

“We talk about it, but I have not seen any true efforts of bolstering it up,” he continued. “I’ve been through some really – and I mean this not in a negative sense - just blatant, ignorant discussions about what causes crime and why the ‘Have you been convicted of a felony’ box matters. People talking about this who are analyzing statistics but who never truly experience the environment that they’re so-called studying. And if you miss that, you miss the application of the data that you’re studying and it gives you a huge margin of error.”

'I want a PhD'

Angel Martinez discovered BPI while he was incarcerated at Green Haven Correctional Facility in Beekman, New York. Javier Nieves, a friend of his, was transferred to Eastern Correctional Facility and enrolled in the program. He wrote Martinez a letter urging him to apply.

Just for the privilege of applying to BPI, Martinez requested a transfer to Eastern in 2005 and was relocated four months later. That summer, Martinez explained, Nieves tutored him in the prison yard under an oak tree and administered practice essay exams.

The entrance exam required him to write a 1-5 page essay response to a quotation. Martinez was rejected. Twice.

Undeterred, Martinez, who barely knew English, took time out to improve his writing skills.

For his third go-around at the entrance exam, Martinez had his essay structure planned out in his head beforehand – regardless of topic. He was determined to write a five paragraph essay with a minimum of five sentences per paragraph. As it turned out, he wrote about the prison experience. Four paragraphs were sufficient. He made it to the interview round and was accepted.

Martinez majored in social studies with a concentration on United States foreign policy with respect to Cuba. He credits his Bard education with fostering in him the analytical abilities that he previously lacked. He admitted, before Bard, he lacked an open mind. Born in the United States in 1971, raised in the Dominican Republic and returning to the U.S. in 1989, he viewed himself as a Dominican nationalist. BPI taught him that he was more than that.

“There is no perfect capitalist society or communist society,” he said, “and you are able to step out or transcend these illusory walls that we build in our minds and you are able to come back and forth: the religious box, the Catholic box, the Protestant box - you can go inside them and understand and appreciate our diversity.”

Martinez completed the majority of his senior project in his cell while the other prisoners slept at night, noting that as a student he only slept when he “collapsed.”

Martinez’s hard work, and Nieves’ tutelage, had paid off. The two friends wound up graduating together.

Martinez was invited to speak to his fellow graduates.

“One’s origin is not as important as one’s destiny,” he told the crowd. “The past is not as important as the future; and who we once were, is not as important as whom we can become – students for life.”

Martinez recalled that his advisor gave him some advice after listening to his struggles.

“She said ‘I have come to realize that getting an education in prison is a form of resistance,’” Martinez said. “And I tell each of you: Resist.”

Martinez would like to extend his education beyond his Bachelor of Arts degree. There’s just one snag: He has at least five and a half more years behind bars.

Martinez, now 42, was found guilty of second-degree murder in 1994 and sentenced to 25 years to life. In 2018, he will face a parole board.

“No matter how old I get or when I get released,” he said, “I want to continue my studies. I want a PhD.”

The elite, private liberal arts college’s main campus is located in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. Prisoners who have been granted release often travel to the campus for the traditional graduation ceremony.

For now, Martinez is planning on enrolling in a few post-grad courses through BPI. He wants to try pre-calculus and political science, and advance his German through lessons with a German speaker who visits the facility. He will also take a class on tutoring so that he may tutor new BPI students.

'Our life is Bard'

One such BPI novice is Daryl Robinson, a student currently enrolled in the program. He was thrilled to be admitted to BPI after an anxiety-ridden application process in which a record 150 inmates applied.

“I hadn’t written, academically, in a long time so I was nervous,” Robinson, who had some college before prison, told CNN. “It was stressful.”

Robinson hopes to get his BA in liberal arts, and so far he has studied anthropology, a public speaking elective, some core requirement courses and a writing intensive.

“It’s a lot of papers, a lot of revisions,” he said, “so it was a pretty intense first semester. It changed my life schedule. It takes up most of your time.”

Robinson was asked if he gets granted study time in his schedule or any sort of leeway because of BPI.

“The Department of Corrections doesn’t give us any special preference,” he said with a laugh. “We just eliminate all the other good stuff that might be happening. For instance, if there’s a movie showing we won’t be there because we have reading to do.”

There is a room that Robinson and his classmates are allowed to use to write their papers; but there is no Internet whatsoever at Eastern Correctional Facility. If students need to retrieve articles or writings from academic journals that are only available online, their professors must print them off for them.

“Everything that we do for BPI, we give up the rest of our time to do something else for,” he said. “It’s not like we have any specially-scheduled modules for it - no, no, no! This is our life. And it’s a pretty intense program so we have to really be involved. We read all through the night because Bard College itself has a prestigious reputation. And the professors don’t let us sully it in any manner. We’re really working for it. So our life is Bard. That’s basically what it comes down to.”

Robinson, 37, is in prison for a robbery he committed in 1996 at the age of 19. There was a warrant out for his arrest until he was caught in 2008.

“So really,” he admitted, “I was free from 1996 until 2008.”

He has less than six years left of his 10-to-20-year sentence to serve. The majority of his fellow inmates and classmates are serving far longer sentences.

“For us in our jail time,” he explained, “that’s really short. I’ve been in prison a total of five years.”

Robinson took some time to reflect on why he wound up behind bars, and why so many inner-city youths wind up incarcerated.

“There’s a specific definition of success,” he said, “depending on how you grew up or what neighborhood you come from.”

“Where I come from, a guy that sells a lot of drugs is considered successful in a way. He’s reached a certain level of success. But when you learn other things and you read about other successful people, you realize that thought pattern was wrong and that there are other ways to succeed. I don’t have to dribble a basketball or make a rap song. I can, literally, be a writer. I can have a conversation with somebody about Socrates now, or The ‘Tempest.’ It broadens you. It gives you a bigger picture of the world and takes you out of the small picture.”

Robinson is particularly grateful to Bard for introducing him to works of literature he either didn’t know existed or merely had a passing knowledge of. He marveled over Robert Alter’s “Genesis,” Charles Darwin, William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” and Plato.

“I’d never actually read anything written by Plato,” he said, “so when I read ‘The Republic’ I was amazed at the writing itself. It was a great book. I was very shocked to learn that Socrates had a religious belief. He believed that knowledge and all real things came from above, from the gods. So that was fascinating in itself. And how that founded all the Western philosophy, it was just a delight. Everything I read I’d never read before.”

Robinson’s previously untapped love of literature spills out into his correspondence with his family. He mailed his mother passages from “The Tempest,” knowing she never got the opportunity to study Shakespeare. In addition, he sends readings and graded exams and papers to his wife so that their children can learn by his example.

“BPI shows them that I’m in here doing something absolutely positive - something that they should aspire to do with the opportunities that they have. And it also reinforces how important education is in the home. It’s wonderful in that way.”

The children of an educated inmate are far less likely to go to prison themselves if they see their parents as educated examples. But they did come to prison.

For the graduation.

Pomp, circumstance and all the trimmings

Bard Prison Initiative’s 10th ceremony, held in the correctional facility’s auditorium, was the largest in the program’s 12-year history. The day’s 60 graduates included a group of women who obtained their degrees in absentia. Bard President Leon Botstein explained to the entire auditorium that the graduation mimics the exact ceremony at any college campus commencement – pomp, circumstance, caps, gowns and all.

"These men have gotten the very same education our undergraduates do,” he said. “Their degrees are the very same degrees and we're proud that they have the degrees we give in Annandale in June."

Botstein said: “We count you as part of our undergraduate population” before stage whispering: "You work a lot harder and you have a much tougher time getting there."

He even went so far as to not-so-playfully jab the typical campus co-ed.

“One of the great ironies of the Bard Prison Initiative,” he said, “is the realization that those without freedom come to understand the value of education far more than individuals with access, privilege, and possibility of going to college. The American undergraduate is a lazy and disrespectful and arrogant creature mostly interested in sports and social life - and thinking and using one’s mind is actually something they hide from their peers. They should all do a tour of duty here to witness how people discover that the most important part of our body is above the neck and between the ears.”

Bard Prison Initiative came about when the program’s founder and executive director, Max Kenner, was still an undergraduate at Bard in 1999. Kenner questioned whether society could do something more than solely deliver punishments to inmates and wondered whether there might be a way to provide a liberal arts education to incarcerated men and women.

Botstein graciously offered to back Kenner up as well as take the blame if the student’s idealistic endeavor failed.

"If I had been a betting man,” said Botstein, “which I am not, I'd have given him very low odds."

Today, BPI enrolls 225 incarcerated New York State prisoners in five penitentiaries and is in the process of assisting colleges in other states to initiate similar programs. To date, Bard Prison Initiative has awarded 250 Bard College degrees.

Kenner spoke not about himself but only of the day’s graduates, of whom he is immensely proud. To give the families in the crowd some context, he explained how admission to BPI is only offered once a year.

"By applying,” said Kenner, “one is publicly putting themselves through a process which they are almost certain to fail. We are only able to accept one in eight, one in 10, sometimes one in 20 applicants; so the very process of applying is one of disappointment.

“It's not as if, if you don't get into Bard you can go to one of those other colleges… This is it, and it's in front of everyone - your families, your peers, et cetera. So everyone here has done that and some of today's graduates had themselves transferred here from other institutions farther away from their families just to take that risk of applying to college. And they studied for two or three or more years to accomplish their associate degrees and many longer for our distinguished men earning their bachelor's degrees today."

'We’re a mixture of good and not good'

Botstein feels that in order for imprisonment to ever translate into some semblance of success, it “must be accompanied with an effort to give people a second chance. The only way to make a lasting impression is the transformation of personality and that's what we call education.”

Botstein pointed out that as a nation, the United States loves to incarcerate and asked: “But then what do we do?”

Before congratulating the graduates and welcoming them to the exclusive community of the educated elite, he quoted Thomas Jefferson. Botstein selected that particular Founding Father because Jefferson has largely fallen out of favor in the eyes of many Americans – not unlike individuals who end up incarcerated.

“We’re not perfect,” said Botstein, “we’re grey. We’re a mixture of good and not good and we struggle in ourselves to work with that imperfect reality.”

Botstein went on to state that in the Declaration of Independence, of which Jefferson was the key author, there’s that phrase everybody learned in school about Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

“It’s an odd phrase,” continued Botstein, “because the way we use the word ‘happiness’ today is a rabidly different way than the way it was used in the 18th Century. Happiness in the 18th Century was a moral category. It was not about having a good time.”

Botstein floated the theory that the current prison population, veterans coming home from war, and 18th Century Americans share an awareness that life is about suffering, but more than that it’s about finding meaning in that suffering.

“The education we hope you have gotten is the most valuable asset in trying to create that meaning,” said Botstein, “…and the instruments you’ve gotten from your education provide you a much better chance to construct that meaning in a way that finally connects to other people.”

Some critics of BPI slam the liberal arts curriculum, stating that it does little, if anything, to prepare offenders for the working world.

Botstein, who has been president of Bard since 1975, often finds himself arguing that a liberal arts education is, on the contrary, the most useful kind of schooling.

“It's the kind of education that actually allows you to live with yourself over time,” he said.

Ronald J. Augustine, a Bard College trustee who spoke at the ceremony, remarked that even though the liberal arts are considered luxuries in certain circles, nothing could be further from the truth.

“They are the essential tools for living to which everyone must have access,” said Augustine, “because they truly awaken and transform the individual talent whose development is essential to society, especially a democratic one.”

Bard College Professor Ellen Lagemann expressed dissent for people who say the liberal arts are archaic.

"The liberal arts help you think straight, reason powerfully and write clearly,” said Lagemann. “They furnish our minds with important knowledge and cultivate in us an appreciation for the beautiful and the just. They enable us to acquire the capacities necessary to choose our own directions. They make civic life possible and meaningful. In the truest sense, the liberal arts are the best vocational education any of us can have. They can help each one of us find our calling and pursue it with discipline and passion; the kind of discipline and passion that is needed for the successful and examined life."

Delivering swagger in Mandarin Chinese

Hancy Maxis is a BPI graduate who examined his life up at the podium for all to see when he addressed the fact that before BPI he was largely anonymous, never knowing he had a voice to share or anything to contribute to society. He recalled “being up all night reading Rousseau and not getting a word of it.”

Eventually the proverbial light turned on and Maxis felt empowered enough “to rise above what our past implies. You always had the potential for this level of achievement,” he told his classmates, “even if you didn’t believe you were smart enough.”

Maxis reminded the group that “with great capability comes great responsibility. Moving forward, our duty is to use our experience to teach the kids who are coming up just like we did a different definition of being real. That you can have swagger and be a mathematician.”

After delivering part of his speech in the Mandarin Chinese he had recently learned, Maxis addressed his mother in the crowd.

“I fully understand that I did the last thing that I ever meant to do,” he said. “I hurt you. I hurt you because I disappointed you. Please accept this degree as a small down payment on my apology because as I stand here I’m still the boy that just wanted to make his mom proud.”

'We have to work harder'

Another BPI graduate, Elias Jose Beltran, touched on the various issues surrounding inmates making amends with their families, friends, communities and society at large.

“This is a free education for us,” said Beltran, “but we understand that no – this isn’t a free education; and that we are in debt. We have to work harder not only for who we are and what we’ve done, not only for our future, but also for the future of those who won’t have the opportunities that we have… That responsibility is neither cheap nor free, and we accept that.”

Then he directly addressed his family.

“I can’t measure the miles that you’ve crossed for me, but you can’t measure the love I have for you.”

Jeff McKoy, a superintendent at Eastern Correctional Facility, addressed criticism of BPI, particularly that of the ‘Isn’t prison supposed to be punishment?’/’Why should felons get free fancy liberal arts educations?’ variety.

“There is, of course, a penal component when an individual comes to prison,” explained McKoy, “but if our society is about getting people ready to return home, then we have to give them the opportunity to make amends, and part of making amends is getting ready to go home and be productive citizens.”

Calling the college diploma “the ultimate document for them to take home and be productive citizens,” McKoy told CNN that “the individuals who have received college degrees have gone home and very few have returned and that in and of itself speaks volumes as far as colleges being inside our walls.”

He pointed out that higher education in prison reduces recidivism rates.

“It works,” he said. “You see the growth in individuals. You see the transformation of character. When getting ready to go home, you see them making amends. You see things change for their families.”

Graduate Jose Angel Perez recalled bouncing around the foster care system from the age of four. The lack of a stable home life made him feel like a constant failure; as if he was inadequate and incapable of being loved.

“I gave up dreaming for a family because I got the sense that I wasn’t worthy,” he said.

That sense of unworthiness crept back when Perez took the Bard entry exam in 2007. He applied three times. He failed three times.

“When I was accepted into Bard on the fourth try,” he continued, “I questioned if I belonged there. I think one of the most important moments a person can experience is when one realizes that he matters.”

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soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. Source Phoenix SEO Training

    Aw, this waas an extremely nice post. Finding tthe time and actual effort to make a top notch article… but what can I say… I hesitate a lot and never seem to get nearly anything done.

    October 11, 2014 at 6:16 am | Reply
  2. Joey at Purdue Univ

    Laura Dimon at Policy Mic has also been highlighting a lot of stuff focusing on reforming the corrections system. Between uncovering iniquities in the system as it is, coupled with the more holistic approach taken by programs like this, the Last Mile, the work of Court Innovation & Judge Calabrese in Red Hook, or the Newark Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative, hopefully there's enough positive models to benchmark against.

    March 23, 2014 at 2:54 pm | Reply
  3. Spencer

    People, the result of cost benefit analysis, no matter how economically beneficial will not always offset any socially related barriers. Some people I suggested prisoners should pay for any education they get. While obliging them to pay for such a program may sound like a good business idea, at least to tax payers, it will slow down the application or effectiveness of such programs. If you ask yourself some of these questions; why did these people get into prison? What level of education do they have? Most of these inmates did not like school in the first place. We may say well now they are contained, do they have a choice? Well, they may not but to some of them, it is something they do not like or do not want. So while I am for educating them I think these programs should be free at face value, at least if the objective is to reduce prison expenses. So my suggestion is, educate them (for free), on programs that can easily put them to work. Example, call center jobs and pay them at overseas pay rates if you want ( instead of shipping these jobs to other countries, some of these felons can do those, under surveillance). Now this is how the government reduces its expenses: , what-ever they earn, take back a percentage but this must not be tied to the cost of the program, meaning that once you serve your term, even if we were matching the deductions to your fees, what ever is left is written off. Such a strategy will promote such a program, encourage them and be beneficial to both parties. Overall, the government will win more here : spend less on criminals and when the leave prison educated, they will add to a productive work force. Thanks – Spencer.

    March 11, 2014 at 4:59 pm | Reply
  4. Joey at Purdue Univ

    Great stuff. Reminds me of that Laurie Seagall segment you did on The Last Mile CS education program in Cali.

    February 19, 2014 at 12:39 am | Reply

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